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Child porn too big for law enforcement? Microsoft steps in.

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AP/File

(Read caption) Steve Ballmer, shown here at a May press conference in New Delhi, is CEO of Microsoft, which has donated a technology that automatically finds hidden copies of child porn. Microsoft has also started a public awareness campaign about the dangers of online sexual exploitation of children.

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Child pornography is the Internet’s most severe social problem.

In recent years it has exploded as countless illicit images are circulated online – viewed by pedophiles and passed around from predator to predator. Since 2003, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) has reviewed and analyzed almost 30 million of these images. It projects that an additional nine million images will be examined in the coming year. NCMEC also acknowledges that the scope of the child porn problem is too large for law enforcement, policy makers and child protection groups to handle on their own.

Enter the world’s second biggest technology company.

“We can help make a big dent,” Microsoft SVP and General Counsel Brad Smith told a group of journalists, bloggers and industry influencers at the company’s recent Citizenship Accelerator Summit. “These photos live on the Internet forever and every time they are shared or viewed, the children in them are re-victimized. It’s not enough to stop the perpetrators. The real point is getting these images off the Internet.”

In 2009, Microsoft donated a new technology to the NCMEC that has the potential to make the kind of dent Smith talks about. The technology, called PhotoDNA, was initially created by Microsoft Research and then further developed by Hany Farid, a leading digital-imaging expert and professor of computer science at Dartmouth College. Using a unique digital blueprinting technology that has a 98 percent accuracy rate, PhotoDNA finds hidden copies of the worst images of child sexual exploitation known today.

“The [Photo DNA] project is unique in that it is challenging from a technical and engineering point of view, and has the potential to significantly impact the distribution of the horrifying and troubling trafficking of child porn,” says Farid. “It is rare as an academic to work on something that has both of these properties.”

Although major content hosters such as Yahoo and Google enforce content standards as a matter of practice, the manual and human-intensive processes they rely on to remove inappropriate posts are no match for the sheer volume of child porn online today. That is why a technology like PhotoDNA, which is used by Microsoft’s own Bing search engine, is so necessary. But there are other reasons, too.

“This project is also extremely important because nobody else seems able or willing to publicly address it in a significant way,” Farid says. Indeed, PhotoDNA has received scant attention from the mainstream press, probably because it centers on a problem that no one likes to talk about. Were Microsoft purely motivated by publicity, then their safest bet would probably have been to lay low on the chid porn issue. But to the contrary, Microsoft is moving in the opposite direction. With its A Childhood for Every Child campaign, launched as a complementary effort to PhotoDNA and in conjunction with NCMEC, Microsoft urges the public to take a greater interest in this important cause.

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According to Farid and others, this is a case where corporate interests effectively – and perhaps even altruistically – work for the greater good. “I am generally cautious of partnering with corporations,” says Farid. “The Microsoft team, however, has been incredibly committed to working on this problem with no obvious financial benefit.”

Whereas Microsoft’s direct financial incentives are still to be determined, the benefits of leveraging the company’s reach and innovation in order to tackle a pervasive social problem are clear enough. “Very few companies can operate at the same level as Microsoft,” Farid says.

Theoretically PhotoDNA’s underlying technology could be applied to various problems related to Internet content – resulting in social and financial upsides. With respect to child porn, Farid says that PhotoDNA is likely only the first in a series of technologies that he and Microsoft will develop to disrupt the flow of images across the Internet. “We will continually enhance PhotoDNA to contend with counter-measures employed by traffickers. We will also extend this work to analyze video.”

Whatever lies ahead, it isn’t any wonder why Farid characterizes his current collaboration with Microsoft as: “the single most important thing that I have done in my career.” Let’s hope he’s not alone – and that more leaders in the technology space will step up to help make the Internet a safer place.

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